Summertime in Philadelphia. The smell of charcoal doused heavily with lighter fluid, the sight of happy children with cherry water ice dripping from their chins and the sound of high-revving two-stroke engines screaming.
It’s that time of year again, folks. Time to keep a close eye on the kids, your parked car and even Grandma as she walks to the corner store.
It’s dirt bike and ATV season.
The illegal, two-, three-, and four-wheeled vehicles, driven recklessly through city streets by teenagers and young adults, have become as much a part of summer as mosquitoes — and twice as annoying.
I saw an ATV, or all-terrain vehicle, commercial on television the other day. Wearing helmets and full protective gear, daredevil riders gleefully kicked up dirt and mud in a field way out in the middle of nowhere, happy to be pushing their new Honda ATVs to the limit. The fine print at the bottom of the screen said, “Professional riders on closed course.”
Later that same afternoon, I was at the local laundromat when maybe 15 or 20 young people came flying down the street on a variety of ATVs and dirt bikes. They were not professional riders, and 17th Street is not a closed course. For 30 seconds, the noise was deafening. They blew through stop signs, ignored traffic laws and caused at least one lady to snatch up her toddler, lest the child be mowed down without a second thought.
There was a time, back in the ’70s, when I probably would have been among them — had the vehicles been popular back then. But my friends and I were avid auto enthusiasts, or hot rodders, as they used to be called — which for teenage boys meant driving like a bat out of hell every time you got behind the wheel.
We took unnecessary chances, ignored safety laws if they inconvenienced us and practiced every dangerous driving maneuver we saw in the movies or on television. (Took me a few tries, but I finally got that “Rockford Files” high-speed J-turn down pat.) We watched, and participated in, illegal street races on Front Street and along Delaware Avenue on weekends, where we enjoyed the camaraderie of our fellow jalopy builders.
Like the ATV and dirt bike riders of today, we were immature and stupid. Unlike our modern counterparts, we knew there was a price to pay if we were caught. Our cars were legal, registered and (mostly) insured, and we had valid driver’s licenses — both of which were at risk if the cops caught me playing Jim Rockford through the streets of Southwest Philly. Once in a while, someone was caught — like my friend Keith — whose license to drive in the state of Pennsylvania was revoked for 20 years.
Today, cops don’t chase kids driving those dirt bikes and ATVs, even though they are illegal on city streets and a danger to everyone in the vicinity. I can understand the reasoning behind the “no chase” policy — the rider will take off at high speed, endangering even more people with the ensuing police chase. So, the police, for the most part, just ignore them.
Like the cop who was parked across the street from the laundromat when the ATV riders went by — who looked up from his paperwork for a second and watched as they popped wheelies through the stop sign — then went right back to filling out his report.
A few months ago Tribune crime reporter Larry Miller wrote a piece about the dangers of ATVs and dirt bikes on city streets — including the story of one young man killed on one of the illegal machines when he broadsided a vehicle at an intersection. Witnesses claimed he was being chased by a blue van, presumably driven by police — a claim which was never proven.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, between 1982 and 2006 there were 105 ATV related deaths of Pennsylvania children under the age of 16. And that doesn’t count the injuries to other drivers, non-fatal injuries, and property damage.
In Philadelphia, because the vehicles are illegal anyway, most are unregistered and uninsured, and many are stolen. Riders eschew helmets and safety equipment, and seem unconcerned about their own lives, or anyone else’s.
This is a long way from teenage hot rodders and their souped-up Camaros and Mustangs.
This is where we make a serious community decision. Either we band together to demand the city do something about illegal ATVs and dirt bikes, or we spend the summer picking out caskets and tombstones.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.